19 May 2009 | Semi-evolutionary
Late 30s drama tries to find middle path in political confusion: strongly endorses sentimentality as best choice, disguised moderate liberalism a close second
This significant film, pretty much withheld from circulation these days except in the odd eBay home-made DVD (how I saw it), has a mixed reputation. In those days of the late 1930s, there was much agitation about how to recover from the Great Depression and what changes society needed to make--and how drastic they should be---in order to avoid ever going through it again. It is thus one of the very, very few mainstream Hollywood movies to have an openly Communist character outspoken for what he is---an attacker of big capitalism which exploits the common working man. (He calls everyone "comrade" just to make sure you understand, but wears a very nice suit.)Yet the makers of the movie don't want him to be the hero, so they (slight spoiler here) have him involved in the blowing up of the factory of a nasty and selfish tycoon who wants to lower the wages at his factory. (The workers have tried to strike against him as a result but have been beaten up by hired thugs.)
On the other hand, the filmmakers have a pretty good go at the millionaire who has big parties and is just selfish and politically manipulative. He is humbled and has to bow down, just as the Communist labor organizer has to. So who is left to root for? Just an old-fashioned all-American country lawyer who talks to a statue of Lincoln. This movie even has a character say, "we don't want the left, we don't want the right, we just want to go down the middle." In fact, this is a rather liberal movie of its day, tending to side with the progressive politics of President Roosevelt's New Deal. Ironically, though, it has been treated very harshly by some, but not all, historians (as opposed to movie fans and ciritics). At the time, labor leaders thought it was a right-wing conspiracy movie, because for practical reasons, they were at the time accepting the help and encouragement of Communists who who among the few to offer real assistance at a time when unionism was just beginning to obtain legal legitimacy. Anyone attacking the Communists was thus seen as attacking organized labor. (You have to remember that the so-called Popular Front of the late 30s united all well-meaning people, including both liberals and Communists, in the fight against Fascism, such as in Spain, and this included all good progressive causes in the US such as labor unionism.)
Even now, there are leftist historians who think this movie is a little reactionary or at least anti-labor. In fact, it is just very moderate, or even slightly liberal in retrospect, justified with a kind of sickly-sweet patriotism that tries to substitute love of the flag for any political allegiance. It is almost forgivable in that respect, but its flaws were not invisible to sophisticated audiences at the time. The New York Times movie reviewer in 1939 made slight fun of the fact it was about just everything you could imagine a nice sweet story about modern America should be: "a strike, a strike-breaker, a Communist agitator, a tycoon, an Aunt Tillie, a girl, a boy, a leading citizen and several other things." Nonetheless, it is a fascinating look at how mainstream Hollywood---Paramount studios---tried to find a realistic, entertaining and relatively balanced look at the pressing issues of its day at a time when political divisions were sometimes very bitter.. Much of it is soap opera (including a very young, but good, Susan Hayward), but a great piece of movie and political history, and not a bad little watch.